Portland’s racial equity panel begins its work

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Portland City Councilor Pious Ali and a former Bowdoin College professor will co-chair the new Racial Equity Steering Committee for at least the next few months.

Ali and Lelia DeAndrade agreed to serve as co-chairs at least temporarily, since the group indicated it may want to have new chairs throughout the duration of their work. In its first meeting Monday, Sept. 28, the group also agreed it was important to have male and female co-chairs.

The other members of the committee are Abdul Ali, Kate Knox, Merita McKenzie, Peter O’Donnell, Niky Dwin Watler Amaris, Lado Lodoka, Suheir Alaskari, Deborah Ibonwa, Jerome Bennett, Louis Pickens, and Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck.

Mayor Kate Snyder, bottom, and members of Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee listen to comments by city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta during the panel’s organizational meeting Sept. 28. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

They introduced themselves and discussed their backgrounds in a remote meeting Monday night.

O’Donnell, a former city councilor,  said this is “a tremendous opportunity … to really help the community and really move us forward.” A lifelong Portland resident, he said he was involved in city politics until about 10 years ago, and works in health-care services for veterans.

“I am just happy to be here and listen and make a contribution,” O’Donnell said.

Pickens is a chef and caterer. Originally from Dallas, he said he moved to Portland about 11 years ago and has worked in kitchens around the city, including at the Portland Harbor Hotel and Mercy Hospital.

“I do feel the need for this as I’m sure everyone does, and I’m excited to get to work,” he said.

Sahrbeck said he is looking forward to giving the group better information on the criminal justice side of its discussions.

Bennett said he works in finance at Preble Street Resource Center and has been in Maine for 15 years and Portland for 10.

McKenzie is a teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, and said this was the right time for this committee to be taking up this work.

Lodoka, a graduate of Portland High School, said she works for Democracy Maine.

Alaskari is originally from Baghdad, Iraq, but considers Portland her hometown. She works at the University of Southern Maine, where she also received a master’s degree.

Abdul Ali, who goes by Ali, said he also works with USM and with Maine Inside Out, a community of artists who share their experiences with incarceration and institutional racism.

“I’m more than happy to be here,” he said.

Knox, an attorney at Bernstein Shur, said she also does lobbying work and has worked on criminal justice and immigrant rights.

Amaris is originally a lawyer from Colombia, but now is a business owner in Portland.

Ibonwa is a Cheverus High School graduate, and a policy advocate at Maine Equal Justice.

The 13-person panel is charged with addressing issues of systemic racism and inequality in the city, and with reviewing the city’s approach to policing and public safety.

The group will also handle any investigation into the June protest that followed the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was in the custody of police.

The group still needs to hire a facilitator to help with its administrative work and decided that will be its next step.

Bennett proposed meeting twice a week, saying “systemic racism is a lot to handle.” Pious Ali said the group is not being charged to solve all of systemic racism in Portland, but has a more limited scope. He suggested meeting twice a month.

Because they will have to send recommendations back to the City Council by Jan. 21, 2021, the members agreed to meet weekly for the next eight weeks, with the expectation that meetings will last at least 90 minutes.

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